AMBITION’S 18th issue features the Smokin’ Brothers, the masters behind the smoked salmon brand that is served and stocked by the country’s top restaurants and boutique food halls. The charismatic Vincenzo spoke to us about how three good friends from Italy with a passion for artisan food have committed themselves to innovation, sustainability and so much more.

Where does your ambition come from? 

We are all driven in our own way. We all want to prove ourselves and our worth. In my case, it’s demonstrating to myself who I really am and going to sleep knowing that I’ve done my best every day.

What role do each of the ‘Smokin Brothers’ play in the business? 

Alessandro mainly takes care of production and logistics. Iacapo takes care of the digital and marketing aspects of the business as well as the visuals. I take care of the people and growth of the business. But because it’s a small business, we all do what needs to be done. On different occasions, we’ve all exchanged roles when needed. 

Many people have business partners, but you don’t often hear of three-way partnerships. What are the biggest advantages and challenges of being a trio? 

I think 3 is the perfect number. The more partners you have, the more support, perspectives and skills are brought to the table. The way we approach it is by taking charge of our own individual roles, bringing forward our ideas, discussing them as partners and then ultimately the person in charge of that role has the final decision. Having business partners is very important because there are always ups and downs. It’s nice to celebrate the ups with each other and it's nice to have a shoulder to cry on during the downs. In our case, we’re friends, so there’s mutual support on the professional side as well as the personal side. 

Smokin’ Brothers Smoked Salmon is served in top London restaurants and endorsed by some of the best chefs in the UK. How have you been able to build such strong industry relationships?

It starts with the quality of the product. You’re never going to work with high level people and businesses unless you’re selling something of high quality. Next, it's about being bold and not being afraid to get in touch with CEOs and executive chefs of top companies or restaurants. The only way to get to their level was to convince the people at the top that we were better than them.

When we got started, we felt so small in such a huge market with so much competition. This change in mindset - once we stopped being scared to get in touch and keep pushing -  is how we got connected with the likes of Michele Roux Jr, Pierre Koffmann, and Marco Pierre White. Once these people were on our side and started talking about us, more people naturally came. When a Michelin star chef says we have the best smoked salmon, it’s so much easier to sell it to anyone else.

On the retail side, having a 3 star TASTE award was a big game changer for us. Mainly, when we were told we were in the top 1% of food producers, it gave us confidence to reach out to Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnum & Mason and other big players in a bold way. 

Your brand honours a commitment to ethical innovation. What other values are important to you as business owners?

The number one is to have a team that loves what they do. For me, the team is like having kids and also brothers. As partners, we’re like a brotherhood and with employees, it’s like having a family with a lot of kids - we need to look after them. For me, a core value is to take care of the people I work with and naturally, they will then look after the product and company in return. 

What’s been the greatest risk you’ve taken with Smokin’ Brothers?

We’re actually not the biggest risk-takers in many ways. A big risk we did take, however, was approaching the market with packaging that costs more than twice that of competitors to prove we were committed to sustainability. Likewise, the product itself is very expensive salmon that is certified and cuts no corners in terms of purity. In some ways, this is a risk because we’re putting ourselves in a niche market by prioritising sustainability over profit margins. We could’ve made so much more money going plastic and going simple, but we decided to be very bold.

What has been the biggest ‘pinch me’ moment as the company has grown? 

The collaboration with Le Gavroche was very important for us. Having Michele Roux Jr, one of the most celebrated chefs in the UK,  say that we produce the best product in our market was a big one. 

Giorgio Locatelli posting about us was also a big moment. In Italy, Locatelli is THE chef. He’s a Masterchef judge and it was huge that he said we’ve taught him something new about smoked salmon. It was a very proud moment because I had a huge amount of friends texting and calling me asking, ‘What the fuck, how did you do this?’ Being featured in The Times and Forbes were also pretty good. 

The way we are, we’re never really satisfied, but when we see a huge amount of people being satisfied for us, then we’re like, okay, maybe we should be satisfied too. 

How do you approach the challenge of introducing a relatively traditional product like smoked salmon to new audiences and markets? 

Product innovation. The sashimi cut we implemented was a huge change. There was historically a traditional way to slice salmon in England and that was it. For us, using the sashimi cut was certainly a shift. When we were approaching chefs, we were fighting for the sashimi cut. We would go to the chefs with the salmon unsliced, then slice it in front of them and explain why we’re doing this. Chefs were looking at me puzzled in the beginning and were like, ‘this is too thick,’ or  ‘this doesn’t make any sense.’ But once we explained the differences and the chef tried it, they’d understand why we do it in this way. 

Since then, so many chefs have changed their approach to slicing. I remember when we started, there was basically no one doing the sashimi cut in the UK and now you tell me who doesn’t do it now? All of our competitors have added the sashimi cut to their products when they didn’t have it before. So in a way, we’ve introduced the sashimi cut to the UK market, which was something that people used to find weird and unorthodox. Now it’s one of the most used techniques on the market. You have the same product but it tastes different! 

What challenges have you faced as small business owners, and how have you overcome them? 

The pandemic was a huge one. We were about to break even and we lost our entire customer base. None of our clients paid a single penny and within days we were in debt and clientless. We couldn’t afford packaging to go BTC, as at the time we were just BTB, so we were hand-wrapping the salmon. Most of the time, I was getting in touch with chefs, influencers, bloggers and anyone who could spread the word to convince them to buy our product as a B2C client.

That’s when we started to get bold. In the sense that it was either we needed to make £20-30k per week in the next two weeks or we’re going to have to close the business. This is when I started reaching out to all the big players and gifting them the product without asking for anything in return. Word of mouth started giving us a huge amount of contacts. People were naturally happy to support a great business that was struggling financially in an incredibly difficult time in history. In that time, we built a great customer base. We invested whatever we had coming into our bank and reinvested it into both the customers and the product. 

We’ve overcome challenges by having the support of one another as business partners. Even arguing about what we should do in that situation is some sort of support. You have someone to confide in rather than being on your own. Even down to proving to your business partner that we can make it through this and support each other in the most difficult times. 

Can you share any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs looking to start a luxury food brand? 

Don’t be afraid of increasing the price, that’s for sure. Oftentimes, it's easier to sell very expensive rather than just a little above your competition. Make sure the value you’re providing is much higher than your competition.

Don’t be arrogant. We all think that we are so much more important than what we actually are. Focus on your strengths and find someone who can come in to support where needed in the business. 

Finally, You need to sell your idea and effectively convince people it’s a journey worth joining. 

How do you see the future of the luxury food market evolving, and how do you plan to stay ahead of the curve?

Staying ahead of the curve comes down to being able to adapt and try new things. Right now, we are in the market of smoked salmon, but we have so many options to go beyond this. For example, we’re looking at different dry aged fish as well as creating many dry aged meat products to transfer to the fish market. Learning from people all over the world and transferring this to the UK market is another way we stay ahead of the curve. 

Italians are notoriously masters of gastronomy. How has your Italian heritage influenced the way you approach food and the business?

For Italians, food is a celebration. It’s an excuse and an opportunity to have fun. Our approach is two pronged. In a practical way, Italians have very high quality produce and use very little ingredients. We’ve used the same approach with our product, understanding the key things that make it great and kept it simple in this way. Less is more. In the other way, it’s about celebration, fun and giving the opportunity for people to enjoy a moment with loved ones. 

What role has social media played in growing your business? Do you rely on it for discoverability? 

Not much, to be honest. In the sense that we’ve not heavily invested into social media. I don’t believe social media has had the biggest impact on our success. What it did help with was getting in touch with people. It’s a tool we use to reach people. It wasn’t a tool to share so much, but rather to get attention from Jamie Oliver, or the CEO of Fortnum & Mason, and many other people.

What’s next for Smokin’ Brothers? 

In the most present sense, it’s expansion in Europe and then worldwide. We are also looking into creating a restaurant because we work with so many chefs and spend so much time with them that it would almost be bizarre not to. We haven’t decided if this will be a fine-dining restaurant or more of a casual brunch place. So at the moment we’re putting a business plan together. We also like the idea of implementing catering and other services that are not just about producing, but also delivering to our clients in many different ways. We’ve taken on a new building which is going to be a kitchen, and with this, there’s so much we can do, including using the entirety of the salmon to make into other products.

Thank you so much to Smokin' Brothers for sharing their wisdom with us. You can keep up to date with all things Smokin' Brothers via their Instagram.